The Bruising Saga Between Football and Alzheimer's Continues
For a significant portion of my life, football has reigned supreme. My allegiance in my early years went to the Denver Broncos, who my parents avidly began supporting during the 1960s despite the team’s dismal record. Then we moved to Texas, long known as a football powerhouse. And I ended up attending Odessa Permian High School, the football juggernaut whose gridiron glories and challenges were detailed in the book, “Friday Night Lights.” Yes, I attended the school that also served as the basis for the movie and the television drama of the same name. I still have memories of those long drives through West Texas with Mom and my friends so we could cheer the team on through their hard-hitting efforts to get through the playoffs and win the state championships. And I also remember the pressure that young boys in Odessa felt to commit to football early; in fact, my brother started playing football (complete with pads and helmet) while in elementary school, although he soon gave up the sport.
All of this got me thinking when I read accounts of the recent report concerning the National Football League players and dementia. According to the
New York Times, the study, which was commissioned by the NFL and conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, has found that Alzheimer’s disease and other similar brain diseases appear to have been diagnosed at a much higher rate in retired pro football players than in the U.S. population.
The University of Michigan researchers conducted a phone survey of 1,063 retired NFL players (or their caregivers) about various health issues, such as heart attacks, ulcers, sleep apnea, and cholesterol). The New York Times article reported, “The Michigan researchers found that 6.1 percent of players age 50 and above reported that they had received a dementia-related diagnosis, five times higher than the cited national average, 1.2 percent. Players ages 30 through 49 showed a rate of 1.9 percent, or 19 times that of the national average, 0.1 percent.” The league is conducting another study of 120 retired players, which will include neurological examinations.
The recently released NFL study makes me wonder about the fate of the 1.2 million young men who play football at the high school as well as those who are able to play at the college level. What do we know about the impact of head injuries and whether these injuries eventually set up these young athletes for severe brain health issues later in their life? And what can be done to protect them? I hope that some researcher begins to probe whether there is a link between these levels of athletes and Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
On a positive note, I found a 2007 story on sciencedaily.com that focused on high-tech headgear that was being used by one high school and some college teams. The high-tech headgear sends information to a laptop computer on the sideline which enables coaches and trainers to effectively determine whether a player has suffered a blow to the head that may result in a concussion or more severe brain injuries. And more importantly, this technology enables the coaches to take immediate action to remove a player who is at risk from the game.
The data from the headgear also is being analyzed by a University of Illinois research team. Lead researcher Dr. Steven Bruglio expressed concern about the link between football and Alzheimer’s, even at the lower athletic levels. He’s quoted as saying, “What other researchers are finding is that people with multiple concussions have incurred Alzheimer’s disease at a higher rate. Getting their ‘bell rung’ as high school athletes may have permanent repercussions. There seems to be a link.”
This study of the high-tech helmets is critical since researchers may be able to learn important information that can help guide manufacturers in redesigning football helmets to make them safer. And that type of proactive research will be important in making sure that those bone-crunching tackles -- whether at the professional, collegiate, or high school levels – do not set the stage for Alzheimer’s disease.